starring Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano and Peter O’Toole
written and directed by Brad Bird
rated G.

What is it about food and the creation of fine cuisine that make, not only for quality cinema, but for deeply meaningful explorations of art and spirituality? Two of my favorite movies, Big Night and Babette’s Feast, use delicious dishes crafted with loving care by a gastronomic artiste as a jumping-off point for discussions about the value of art and what it means to truly appreciate quality and craftsmanship (among other things). Now along comes Ratatouille, which puts Pixar’s creative minds and powerful computers to work on charting the same territory in an animated movie that will appeal to the young as well as the old. And I love it.

The short at the beginning is simply hilarious, and full of ideas that I wouldn’t mind seeing developed into something more substantial. But then I saw the movie, and I almost forgot about it.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a very abnormal rat: he has highly-developed senses of taste and smell, and he can’t stand knocking back the same old garbage that his fellow rats thrive on. He wants to be a gourmet chef. His refined sensibilities inevitably get him into all sorts of trouble, but they eventually also lead him to the kitchen of Gusteau’s. Once the center of fine French dining, the restaurant has fallen on lean times since the death of its namesake, and now operates under the dubious leadership (and mass-market sensibilities) of Chef Skinner (Ian Holm).

Soon, Remy strikes up a very unlikely partnership with Linguini (Lou Romano), the garbage boy, and together they breathe life back intoGusteau’s cuisine. Before long, though, they attract the attention of dour food critic Anton Ego (voice deliciously by Peter O’Toole), and ultimately the fate of the restaurant hangs on his opinion.

The plot is a good deal more complex (and entertaining) than I can convey in a brief, spoiler-free synopsis, but that’s the gist. The computer animation is more gorgeous than ever without sacrificing the essential cartoonish-ness that makes these movies such a joy to watch. Visually, this is Pixar’s finest film yet, and it may be their best in most other respects as well (although Finding Nemo is arguably still top dog, and The Incredibles remains my personal favorite).

There are some flaws, I’m sure, in logic, pacing, execution and so forth. But honestly, for me it would take multiple, severely-analytical viewings to worry them out. I have heard some complaints about a draggy middle section. I experienced no such boredom. And, if Ego’s brief sermonette at the end sounds incredibly sanctimonious considering its source, it is still largely the truth. The sheer quality of Ratatouille allows for a tactic that would have been hard to swallow otherwise.

But Ego leaves one very important aspect of being a critic (at least as I know it) completely unaddressed. It may be true, as he says, that critics “thrive” on negative criticism. It certainly is fun both to write and to read. And it might even be that “the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so,” (although my own experience with the average piece of junk indicates otherwise).

Left unsaid is that members of the critical community who are truly good at what they do, from Roger Ebert on down, are not in the game because they get some kind of sick pleasure from trashing someone else’s hard work. They are in pursuit of the pleasure of witnessing a truly great film or consuming a truly great meal or . . . whatever. Any bitterness or angst that may creep into a harsh review of some inferior offering is largely the result of having been denied that good experience; of having wasted one’s time on garbage when treasure awaits elsewhere.

Negative criticism is fun in its way, but critics who are passionate about what they do thrive on great art. Bad critics are (as Ego seems to be) merely critics. Good critics are, like Remy himself, discerning connoisseurs who know that quality is important.

~ by Jared on June 30, 2007.

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